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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Volunteers wash down boats at landings to prevent the spread of aquatic invaders. © Montello Lake District
Volunteers wash down boats at landings to stem the advance of aquatic invaders.
© Montello Lake District

June 2004

Rallying the water brigade

It takes people, patience and time to recognize and prevent the spread of tiny aquatic invaders.

Mandy Beall


Meet the inspectors | Strength in numbers
Milfoil Masters
Patience to control the "purple peril"
Mapping other invasives | Money to get going

You're back at the dock after a good time fishing. The boat slides onto the trailer, the winch line is cinched, straps are in place, taillights are plugged in and the gear is stowed – but you're not ready to go just yet. While the last of the water runs out the boat drain, remove any bits of lake weeds caught on the prop or lower unit. Clean any plants from the deck and anchor lines. Drain your live well. On the way home, consider stopping by a self-service car wash and rinsing the hull thoroughly with a high-pressure hose.

These few simple steps can dramatically reduce the chance that your SS Minnow might unintentionally give invasive fish, plants, mollusks and aquatic insects a free ride from one lake to another.

Community volunteers have been working with the Department of Natural Resources and lake associations to inform power boaters, canoeists, kayakers, sailors, sailboarders and even sea plane pilots about actions they can take to avoid transporting invasive species between waters. Other volunteers have joined the battle by forming groups to physically uproot the offenders, or by enlisting the assistance of insect allies.

Invasive species established a beachhead in Wisconsin waters decades ago, but the number of new species, the invasion routes and the rate of spread warrant a fresh counterattack. Some species were intentionally introduced, like the common carp; others arrived accidentally, such as zebra mussels carried in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Some species were originally seeded in gardens or were dumped when exotic "pets" outgrew their aquariums.

Invasive aquatic species threaten the diversity and abundance of native species. They alter ecosystems, harm tourism, and put a damper on outdoor recreation. While the talk surrounding invasives is often negative, more people are taking positive action to protect our waters. One early action is learning to recognize invasive species and realizing how people unwittingly can carry these species from one lake to another.

Meet the inspectors

State crews started inspecting watercraft for signs of invasive plants and animals two years ago. This summer trained volunteers will also be stationed at boat landings throughout the state to share information about invasive species, show pictures of our lakes' "Least Wanted" and review the simple steps to prevent transporting unwanted hitchhikers.

Boaters at a launch site might meet a watercraft inspector, like Erica King of DNR's Waukesha office. Erica and the other inspectors provide boaters with Watch Cards – small ID cards highlighting species of concern, with tips on how to properly identify the troublemakers, prevention steps and phone numbers to report new sightings.

King will point out places, like the motor, the trailer bunks and rollers, and even the wheel axles, where aquatic plants can become entangled. She'll mention that live wells, bait buckets, and the motor, if not drained, can carry water from one lake to another. Because it is important to avoid transporting plants and animals, as well as water, from one waterbody to another, anglers will be asked to dispose of unwanted live bait in the trash.

If a boat was moored in zebra mussel-infested waters, King might ask the owners to run their hands over the hull. If it feels grainy, there may be young zebra mussels attached. All visible mussels should be removed and disposed of in the trash. The boat hull should be washed with hot water or a a high-pressure hose, or left to dry thoroughly for five days before taking it to another waterbody. Finally, King will present the boat owner with a handy reminder sticker to place on the boat trailer post that outlines prevention steps.

These prevention steps protect against zebra mussels, Eurasian water-milfoil and other organisms – including the spiny waterflea, which was found for the first time on a Wisconsin inland lake last fall.

"The most common question I get is, 'What can I do to help?'" King says. "Getting into the habit of taking these precautions can protect the resources people care about. It's rewarding to go back to a landing and see people who you've talked to before inspecting their boats. Overall, the response has been very positive."

Inspectors have posted thousands of signs at boat landings, alerting boaters where invasive species are present and reminding them of the prevention steps. During the off-season, inspectors spend time talking with boaters at sport shows, contacting area boat and bait dealers, visiting classrooms and helping to schedule volunteer workshops.

Strength in numbers

Organized groups are putting their collective muscle into fighting invasives.

"When I attended an invasive species session at the 2003 Wisconsin Lakes Convention, I came away with the strong feeling that DNR resources alone were inadequate to do all that was needed to prevent the spread of exotics to inland lakes in Northwest Wisconsin," says Roger Dreher, president of the Bayfield County Lakes Forum (BCLF). "Immediate action needed to be taken to prevent zebra mussels, Eurasian water-milfoil and other species from invading county lakes, and all who use the lakes or whose businesses depend on lakes needed to join the fight."

BCLF volunteers and employees of the U.S. Forest Service and County Land Conservation Department are posting DNR signs at boat landings, starting with those that are most heavily used. News releases published in local papers last summer promoted these efforts and raised awareness about the issue.

The lakes forum also asked resorts, campgrounds and marinas to post or distribute information on invasives. These businesses gave near unanimous support. This summer, flyers will be distributed at area businesses and the Bayfield County Zoning Office will insert flyers in their informational package for shoreland owners.

Milfoil Masters

Youth are on the frontline, too. In 2002, seventh and eighth grade students at Minocqua/Hazelhurst/Lake Tomahawk Middle School received a $25,000 grant from the Christopher Columbus Foundation to launch the Milfoil Masters program, which offerred workshops and materials for volunteers to spread the word about preventing the spread of Eurasian water-milfoil into their favorite lake.

"The students' goal was to hold workshops, then saturate all of the boat launches on Opening Day of the fishing season," says Lisa Ahlers, teacher and coach for the Milfoil Masters. "Eurasian water-milfoil has the potential to totally overtake a water, block fish movement and hamper boating and fishing. In communities where the economy is so heavily based on outdoor activities and tourism, the idea of doing something to prevent the spread of Eurasian water-milfoil really struck a chord."

The Milfoil Masters drew participants from 75 lakes in 25 counties, including Sandy and Fred Anderson of the Whitefish Lake Conservation Organization (WLCO) in Douglas County. The WLCO sponsored two teams of young adults to inspect boats and talk with boat owners at landings on most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays last summer. The group coordinated weekly inspections of the water near the boat landings to detect early signs of infestation. The group also published newsletter articles and invited guest speakers to the annual meeting of lake property owners. Two local TV stations featured the monitoring at public landings and aired public service announcements that reached thousands of people.

"Momentum is building, and more and more people are starting to agree that problems will develop if we stand idle," say the Andersons. "Hopefully many more will join in the mission to preserve natural resources, the Northwoods atmosphere, and 'cabin living.'"

The Milfoil Masters energized and enlisted enough volunteers to carry over to another project. The Clean Boats, Clean Waters program debuts this summer statewide offering training on how to organize a watercraft inspection program, how to inspect boats and equipment, and how to interact with the public at boat landings. Workshops sponsored by the DNR, UW Extension, and the Wisconsin Association of Lakes are open to adults and youth; adult groups are encouraged to work with local youth partners. Contact Laura Felda-Marquardt, Volunteer Coordinator for the Invasive Species Program, UW Extension-Lakes Program at (715) 365-2659 for details.

Patience to control the "purple peril"

Groups hoping to combat pesky purple loosestrife have found small but powerful allies in beetles that feed only on this invasive species. The Lake Pewaukee Sanitary District in southeastern Wisconsin started its biological control program in 1999 by raising Galerucella beetles with a sixth-grade class from Pewaukee Middle School. The district later teamed up with the Lake Country Rotary Club and the Women's Club of Pewaukee to continue the campaign. Their story reveals the power of patience and persistence.

Beetles were released along the Pewaukee River in 1999. Inspections the following spring didn't show any evidence of beetle or larval activity. Volunteers assumed the project had failed, and they selected a new release site. Results in the summer of 2001 were the same – no improvement where beetles had been released.

"In the summer of 2003 we were looking for a good location for the Women's Club beetle release upstream of the 1999 site," says Charlie Shong, superintendent of the Lake Pewaukee Sanitary District. "We found what looked like a good site – and there were already beetles there! Since no one else had released in the area, we were sure that these had come from our 1999 release. We went back and checked the original site and found many loosestrife plants damaged by numerous beetles."

Sites treated in 2000 and 2001 are now showing beetles and larval damage up to 800 feet away from the original release location. "The moral of the story is don't give up," says Shong. "It takes time for the beetle population to get to a level where you can find them, and more time for them to start putting a dent in the loosestrife population, but it will happen." Brock Woods, UWEX/DNR Purple Loosestrife Bio-control Coordinator at (608) 221-6349 can help your group learn how to raise a beetle battalion.

Mapping other invasives

Unfortunately the list of aquatic invaders only continues to grow. Rusty crayfish, rainbow smelt and spiny waterfleas have attracted the attention of scientists at the University of Wisconsin Center for Limnology in Madison. Researchers are testing techniques to monitor these invasive species and developing models to predict where they would survive and thrive if introduced. Spiny waterfleas were found last fall in the Gile Flowage (Iron County); the Department of Natural Resources and university limnologists are expanding monitoring statewide and ramping up public awareness efforts, especially on lakes near the Gile.

Money to get going

To encourage more partners on the aquatic invader battlefront, counties, cities, towns and villages can tap into $500,000 in state grants to battle aquatic invasives. The deadline for applying for the next round of grants is August 1st.

"Invasive species are a growing threat to our priceless lakes and rivers, so Wisconsin has decided to increase its support of local efforts to prevent their spread," says Carroll Schaal, DNR lake grant manager. "We've created the Aquatic Invasives Species Control Grants (AIS grants) to encourage local efforts to stem this growing threat."

AIS grants cover 50 percent of program costs that must be matched with cash or donated labor and materials. The grants can be used to prevent invasion into uninfested waters or to control the spread in infested areas. Maximum grant awards will be set in rules that are still being developed. Grants may range up to $75,000, but grant amounts are not firm and are subject to both public and legislative review. Weed harvesting, chemical treatments and other actions that provide only seasonal relief won't be funded.

"Methods for preventing the spread of invasive species are well known and relatively inexpensive, while eradication can be expensive and risky, so we're funding prevention first," Schaal says. "Common sense tells us to first limit the size and scope of the problem and then ramp up efforts to remediate the infested waters."

Prevention plans, educational outreach and watercraft inspection programs will be the first priority for these funds. Grants for infestation control will be limited to lakes with approved management plans, in research areas and demonstration projects.

A new Governor's Council on Invasive Species will review grant rules when drafted. Until that time, interested communities can get information and get going by contacting DNR's Lake Planning and Protection program. Contact Carroll Schaal at 608/261-6423 or visit the UW-Extension Lakes Program for fact sheets describing the new AIS grants.

Mandy Beall coordinates educational outreach on aquatic invasive species for the Department of Natural Resources and UW-Extension.